Lighthouse Keeper of Little Ross and Japan

69 principal and assistant lighthouse keepers served at Little Ross Lighthouse on Little Ross Island at the mouth of Kirkcudbright Bay, for an unbroken period of 117 years. Of the many men women and children who stayed in the Northern Lighthouse Board’s two houses next to the base of the lighthouse tower, the lives of Joseph Dick and his family are of particular note.

Joseph DickJoseph was born in Edinburgh on 12th June 1842 and the 1851 census records him living at Dildawn near Castle Douglas, where his father was a land agent. At the age of 12 years Joseph was apprenticed to the Earl of Selkirk in Kirkcudbright as a gardener. The Earl also employed a large family bearing the surname Dick at that time and it seems probable that the young Joseph was related to and able to live with them during his apprenticeship. St. Mary’s Isle Estate gardens were close to the southern end of St. Mary’s Isle peninsula and the lighthouse on Little Ross was an important part of the view, as the lighthouse tower was on the axis of the main path and flanking borders. It is said that the young Joseph developed an ambition to be a lighthouse keeper in the early years of his apprenticeship.

He succeeded in fulfilling his ambition and after training by the Northern Lighthouse Board at various other stations, was appointed as assistant keeper at Little Ross on 10th July 1867. He served there for only a year and four months, leaving on 13th October 1868. At the end of service, other than when a keeper retired, it was usual for the register of keepers to record their transfer to another location such as Skerryvore, Muckle Flugga, or Bell Rock. Joseph however is merely listed as leaving for Japan.

Tsunoshima LighthouseA Scottish engineer named Richard Henry Brunton, who had been associated with the celebrated Stevenson family of lighthouse engineers, had been commissioned by the Government of Japan to set up a lighthouse service there. He appointed Joseph Dick to help him generally with particular responsibility for the training of local lighthouse keepers. They travelled to Japan during 1868, Joseph being accompanied by his wife Jessie Wilson Milne and their daughter Alison, who had been born at Little Ross.

In the next few years, Joseph settled very well into a new way of life and work in Japan. He was involved with Richard Brunton in the design, construction and maintenance of some 25 lighthouses, including Tsunoshima which is now a museum to Japan’s lighthouse service. His wife however was not so happy in Japan and eventually returned permanently to Scotland with her children, Alison, Joseph, John and Catherine.

Joseph senior prospered in Japan and after his lighthouse service ended, he engaged firstly in taking charge of signaling for the new Japanese railway system and secondly in trading, import and export. In Tunoshima Lighthouse Museum, there is a desk and Japanese chessboard that were used by him and a sculpture of him sitting at his desk.

Statue of Robert Dick

He took a Japanese wife, by whom he had a further three children who were all brought up in accordance with western traditions. The descendants of both sides of his family have recently had a reunion to learn more about the life or lives of this truly enterprising Victorian. In Japan, he was known as ‘the bearded one’ but in Scotland, his relatives know him as ‘Kobe Joe’. He died in Kobe in Japan on 26th September 1914.

David R. Collin 2010